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Nutrition and Mental Health


There is no doubt that diet affects many aspects of health, including weight, athletic performance, and risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes. Researchers have found that it could also affect mental health and well-being.

As the Covid-19 virus raged on in 2020 we were filled with anxiety, apprehension, and the relentless presence of the unknown. We were told to stay home; so we did while comforting ourselves with food. Social media was bombarded with enticing photos of homemade bread, 3-course dinners, and mouthwatering desserts. We ordered takeout as much as possible, both to break up the monotony and to keep our favorite local restaurants afloat during the seemingly never-ending quarantine.

Comfort food is great in moderation. There’s nothing quite like a big bowl of pasta with homemade spaghetti sauce and chocolate cake for dessert when you’re feeling blue. In the long term though, these are not the foods that promote a happy mood. In fact, the very foods we seem to crave when we’re tired or sad can be ultimately harmful to our mental health.

The Gut-brain Axis

As a society, we’ve become increasingly aware of the relationship between the food we eat and our physical health. We’re encouraged to “eat clean” and stick to organics as much as possible. There are countless Instagram influencers preaching to us the merits of various supplements, meal plans, and healthy diets. All for the sake of looking better, feeling more energized, and living longer.

But what about our mental health?

Our brain contains the largest number of neurons in our body – which makes sense. A lesser-known fact is that the second largest number of neurons in our body exists in the gut. These 2 sets of neurons, the brain, and gut, are in communication with each other via the gut-brain axis. (GBA) 1

Have you ever “followed your gut” when making a tough decision, or noticed that fluttering sensation in your stomach when you feel nervous? Those “gut” feelings aren’t just in your head, they’re real.

Your stomach is your second brain, and it’s called the enteric nervous system (ENS). 2 Your second brain is substantial – the ENS consists of 100 million nerve cells that line the entirety of your gastrointestinal tract. Its main function is to control the entire digestive process, from swallowing your food to eliminating it.

There is evidence that the lack of a specific gut bacteria is linked to certain psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). 5

Knowing all of this, doesn’t it make sense that the foods we eat would have a direct impact on our mental health?

The Connection Between Food and Mood

Healthy foods promote the growth of “good” bacteria, which in turn promotes neurotransmitter production. Healthy neurotransmitter production translates into positive emotions and a good mood.

Junk food causes inflammation, which hinders the production of neurotransmitters. When that production isn’t up to par, neither is your mood. Sticking to a diet of healthy foods sets you up for success. You’ll find it easier to focus, as well as to maintain a healthy positive outlook on life. 7

Understanding How Sugar Affects the Brain

Sugar is a tricky beast. We need it to function, but overconsumption can be detrimental to our health. Glucose is the primary source of energy for every cell in our body, and our brain is the most energy-demanding organ we have. Without glucose, we’d lose our ability to think, learn, and remember things. 8

Not all sugar is created equally, however, and the type of sugar we crave isn’t necessarily the sugar we need in order to promote healthy cognitive functioning.

Here’s what happens: When you ingest something sweet, the sweet-taste receptors on your tongue send signals to your cerebral cortex, and your brain gets the message that it’s tasting something sweet. Simultaneously, your brain’s “reward system” is activated in the form of dopamine receptors.

The reward center then tells your cerebral cortex “Eat more of that, it’s very rewarding!” This is why we crave sugar and not broccoli. Broccoli doesn’t give you a rush of rewarding dopamine.

Dopamine is the “feel-good” neurotransmitter that gets released when we ingest sugar. We also experience the benefits of dopamine when we exercise, accomplish difficult tasks, or spend time with the people we love. Those good feelings encourage us to repeat the behavior that caused them, whether or not the behavior is healthy.

This is where addiction comes into play. People who are addicted to drugs or alcohol begin to experience “cravings” because they need more and more of a substance to experience the same level of dopamine release. The same thing happens with sugar. In fact, sugar is more addictive than cocaine. 9

Healthy Sources of Sugar

There are natural sugars and added sugars. Natural sugars can be found in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Added sugars are added to foods during manufacturing, processing, or preparation. You can probably guess which type is healthier for you.

The sugar found in an apple will not cause as high of a sugar spike as a candy bar or bowl of ice cream. Your body and brain will benefit from the necessary glucose-as-fuel from the apple, but you won’t get the same dopamine rush as you would from a bowl of ice cream. This is why we crave those decadent sugary foods when we’re tired or droopy.

When you’re craving sugar, you’re actually craving energy, either for your brain or your body. Here are some foods to reach for instead of a candy bar next time you need a quick boost of energy:


Fruit contains the natural sugars sucrose and fructose, as well as other brain-healthy nutrients such as potassium, vitamin C, and folate. Whole fruits are better for you than dried fruits or juices since they don’t contain added sugars. Whole fruits also contain fiber and water, which help to fill you up and satiate the cravings.

It might take some willpower, but if you can forgo the candy bars and ice cream for a few weeks you’ll soon find that a bowl of strawberries starts to taste just as sweet. And you won’t get that icky sugar crash 20 minutes later.


Blueberries are loaded with antioxidants and are thought by scientists to boost memory.


Raspberries help to fight inflammation of the neurons, which will prevent neurological damage in your brain.


Grapes improve certain cardiovascular functions, leading to better vascular flexibility, and better blood flow; including blood flow to the brain.


Strawberries contain antioxidants that fight off free radicals, which can damage cells and eventually lead to memory loss.


Grapes improve certain cardiovascular functions, leading to better vascular flexibility, and better blood flow; including blood flow to the brain.

It’s never too late to start introducing more whole fruits into your diet. The less you reach for the ice cream, the better the fruits will start to taste. You’ll soon start to feel better, which will make it even easier to substitute fruit for cake. It’s an upward spiral.

Don’t be hard on yourself if it takes some time to make the switch. Sugar addiction is real, and it takes a while for your brain to adjust to not getting those huge sugar and dopamine spikes. It’s worth the effort though; sugar is one of the leading causes of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, cavities, and mood problems.

The other thing to know about sugar is that it’s everywhere. Take the time to read the labels at the grocery store. Many of the convenience items we purchase are loaded with sugar, such as peanut butter, granola bars, and even supposedly healthy “energy” bars. It’s best to stick with unprocessed meats, whole fruit, or nuts as snacks whenever possible.

It takes a healthy brain to maintain a happy brain, and without healthy food, our brain cannot function as it should.

The Link between Depression and Nutrition

There is an entire branch of medicine called Nutritional Psychiatry. More research comes out each year linking dietary habits to the risk of depression. 10

Highly processed foods cause inflammation, which is a factor in depression. Depressed patients in one study who improved their diet for 12 weeks showed a notable decrease in symptoms, as opposed to patients who did not change their diets; their symptoms stayed exactly the same. 11

This is not to say that a poor diet causes depression. It’s easier and more likely one will reach for unhealthy foods when they’re depressed. Shopping, planning meals, and cooking can seem like insurmountable obstacles when you’re battling depression. It’s much easier to order a pizza, heat up a can of soup, or even skip eating altogether.

A healthy diet gives you a better fighting chance, whether you live with depression in the present or wish to avoid struggling with it in the future. Some things that may decrease symptoms of depression include:

Vitamin D

You obtain most of your vitamin D from sun exposure, but it can also be found in oily fish, fortified dairy products, and eggs.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3’s can help to preserve the myelin sheath that protects nerve cells, thereby reducing the risk of mood disorders and brain diseases. You can find them in cold water fish such as salmon, flaxseed & chia seeds, and walnuts.


Antioxidants help to remove free radicals from the body. When there’s a build-up of free radicals, oxidative stress can develop, which can lead to anxiety and depression. You can find antioxidants in fresh fruits; berries, in particular, vegetables, and soy.

B Vitamins

B-12, B-9, and folic acid help to protect your entire nervous system, including your brain. Sources of B-12 are eggs, meat, poultry, fish, oysters, and milk. Folate can be found in dark leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains, dairy, meat and poultry, seafood, and eggs. 13

B-12, B-9, and folic acid help to protect your entire nervous system, including your brain. Sources of B-12 are eggs, meat, poultry, fish, oysters, and milk. Folate can be found in dark leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains, dairy, meat and poultry, seafood, and eggs. 13

Foods to Avoid

We all need to indulge once in a while; food can be joyful, and sometimes we find our joy in pizza and ice cream! It’s important to treat ourselves. What we eat once in a while isn’t as important as what we eat consistently.

As long as you’re getting the vitamins and minerals you need to support your brain health on a regular basis, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with indulging your cravings now and then. You’ll likely find those indulgences much more rewarding when you enjoy them in moderation.


Alcohol can definitely lead to mental health problems. Even before addiction develops, alcohol can contribute to complications such as accidents, relationship problems, and ill health. Just one alcoholic beverage a day can increase the risk of certain cancers.

Alcohol should absolutely be avoided if you are suffering from anxiety or depression. It may seem like a good numbing agent at the moment, but dependence can develop very rapidly. Before you know it, your mental health issues are even worse than they were before.

Refined Foods

Foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients are particularly rough on our mental health. Fast foods and candy bars offer us a quick jolt of energy, but the crash that follows isn’t good for us. People who eat more fast food and less fresh produce have a higher risk for depression.


Caffeine is another tricky one. It is addictive, so the more you ingest the more you need. When you’ve been drinking a lot of coffee for a long period of time, eliminating it from your diet can cause headaches and fatigue.

Small amounts of caffeine have been shown to reduce anxiety and boost mood, but it may also increase symptoms of anxiety and stress. If you’re not ready yet to cut out caffeine, try switching to green tea or matcha. The caffeine boost from matcha is much gentler than coffee, and you don’t feel that crash when it wears off.

Our Attitude towards Food

Our culture has a pretty weird attitude towards food. We’re very judgmental about our own and other peoples’ bodies, unfortunately, and we tend to assume that those with bigger bodies eat too much, and those with smaller ones are “starving themselves”. In truth, that’s often not the case.

We berate ourselves for eating “bad” foods and pat ourselves on the back for eating “good” foods.

What if we change our mindset a little bit, and stop putting moral implications on what we eat? Food is not “good” or “bad” if you really stop to think about it – it’s fuel for our bodies and brains. Sometimes we’re full, sometimes we’re running on empty. Sometimes we get premium, sometimes we get regular.

Whatever we choose to fill our tanks with eventually catches up to us. A long-term diet of fast food and sugar is eventually going to make us feel run down, depressed, and overall unhealthy. Feeling unhealthy is depressing, so our mental health begins to suffer.

Lasting, sustainable change happens slowly. We don’t become long-distance runners overnight; we start with a half-mile and build ourselves up to a marathon.

The same thing goes for changing our diets. If you go from eating burgers and fries every night to eating lettuce, the lettuce diet probably won’t last very long.

Give it some time, and be patient and kind towards yourself. Make thoughtful, gradual changes. Cut down your coffee intake by 2 cups a week. Next time you want a candy bar, consider reaching for an apple instead. Bake your chicken instead of deep-frying it.

You will start to feel clearer, more focused, and more energetic. This will prompt you to partake in more activities and get more exercise. The more you eat well, the better you will feel. And the better you feel, the better your mental health will be.
















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